The book that changed my life

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Jane Christopher on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

My A-level English teacher recommended this book and I have been keen to promote it ever since. I read it on the way to the south of France when I was 17 and, by the time I arrived, I had a note-book full of quotations and felt inspired to think louder. Perhaps if I read it again now it would affect me differently but that is part of the power of reading.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has an author's note. Robert Pirsig says it should "in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual about motorcycles either". That is what it is not and to be honest if it was about either subject I would not have picked it up. It is about thinking, the relationship between what is truth and what is perceived as truth. Pirsig is a modern pilgrim; he travels around America on his motorbike philosophising. But the narrative is not chaotic or snake-like self indulgence - it is sharp with insight.

He writes primarily about being stuck. Our way out is increased "quality awareness". We need not think in terms of object being separate from subject but should rather eek to ask functional questions of things, so that "what it is has ceased to be a category of thought and is a continuing direct experience". Pirsig cleverly combines such aphorisms with his physical journey, allowing us time to digest, before moving us on again. He is successful in a way I thought Sophie's World was not. The latter piled heavy philosophers at my door, weighing me down until I could not see the narrative for the didacticism. I did not feel taught by Pirsig, I felt that he was one of my voices. It gave me confidence knowing that there was someone else out there who thought there was something so fascinatingly wrong in the way we reason.

It has given me a love of ideas (I have recently finished a biography of Nietzsche lent to me by a student) and taught me that there can be such a thing as organised chaos - moments of clear perception within a life. My dream is still to travel around America on a Harley and think big thoughts. Meanwhile, my original copy of the book sits on my bookshelves while the pile of Year 11 marking grows on my desk. Ahh, philosophy.

Jane Christopher is head of English at Droitwich Spa high school and sixth form centre. Has a book changed your life?

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